'UnREAL.' 'Scream Queens.' 'Fargo.' Were they bad for the cause but good for TV?

By Melissa Maerz
Updated December 17, 2015 at 06:29 PM EST
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We said goodbye to Don Draper and hello to Adele. Doughnuts were licked, and dinos were vanquished. And whether we were getting to know Supergirl or supervillains (looking at you, Robert Durst), 2015 turned our emotions Inside Out. So join us as we revisit the year’s most unforgettable moments — for better or worse. (By the time we’re through, maybe we’ll finally have our invitation to join Taylor’s #squad.) See more Best of 2015 coverage.

For too long, strong female TV characters were basically just male characters in drag. Frequently created by male showrunners, they worked among men, threw punches like men, even had men’s names. (Why is every heroine in a law enforcement drama named Alex?) But this year, a new wave of tough heroines actually acted like women — reprehensible women. They operated within unabashedly girly spaces: a TV dating show, a sorority house, a hair salon. Their preferred form of violence was emotional, not physical, and their victims were often other women, despite their insistence that they supported the sisterhood. And the worse these characters behaved, the sharper the show’s commentary about the ruthless forms that female empowerment can take within a male-dominated world.

It was a very good year for bad feminism on TV, and no other show wrestled with that subject better than Lifetime’s UnREAL. As the story followed Rachel (Shiri Appleby), a reality TV producer who exploits contestants’ personal traumas for the Bachelor-like series Everlasting, it explored internalized misogyny with a depth rarely shown on screen. When we first meet Rachel, she’s wearing a T-shirt that reads “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like,” and she sees no conflict between that statement and the fact that her job requires her to follow the mantra “Sluts get cut.”

Rachel and her executive producer Quinn (Constance Zimmer) would be the Jesse Pinkman and Walter White of Everlasting, except they don’t have much control of their lives off set: Quinn is having an affair with her married boss, who refuses to leave his wife, and she and Rachel are both beholden to the network’s sexist male executives. So Rachel and Quinn seize power in the one way they can, by brutalizing the contestants. Rachel exploits one woman’s eating disorder and invites another’s abusive ex onto the set, boosting ratings along the way. Her ambition isn’t exactly admirable, but it’s not pitiable, either. She simply understands that the only way to survive in an industry that profits off women’s mental breakdowns is to act a little bit unhinged herself.

James Dittiger/Lifetime

Rachel would get along well with Scream Queens’ Chanel Oberlin (Emma Roberts), a cutthroat sorority president who calls pledges “idiot hookers.” She’s the head of a system that both encourages leadership among women and trades in their disempowerment — and you could accuse the show of doing the same thing. When a frat boy catcalls Chanel and her sorority sisters, she compares him to a murderer who’s killing off female students on campus, treating them “like meat” — and then she and her fellow Kappas beat him up. On one level, the scene is classic feminist wish fulfillment. On a deeper level, though, it’s asking viewers some unsettling questions. We tune in knowing that we’re going to see beautiful women treated like pieces of meat, whether they’re undergoing bruising hazing rituals or literally being hacked up with a knife. Maybe we’re no better than the killers.

Chris Large/FX

The ladies of Fargo imagine themselves avenging injustice against women, even though they’re committing far worse crimes against humanity. Set in the 1970s amid the rise of second-wave feminism, season 2 features Peggy (Kirsten Dunst) and Floyd (Jean Smart), both of whom feel let down by an era when the best plan for a hyper-driven woman was to hitch herself to a successful man. It’s no accident that Fargo creator Noah Hawley was raised by the feminist activist and author Louise Armstrong: one of the show’s major themes is the way women have sacrificed, strategized, even killed to support far less competent men. Unsatisfied by her schlubby husband (Jesse Plemons) and unglamorous job at a beauty salon, Midwestern hairdresser Peggy feels so cheated by life that when she accidentally offs a gangster, she manipulates her husband into cleaning up the mess and blames the whole thing on her struggle as a woman. “It’s a lot [to think] that you can do it all, be a wife and a mother and a self-made career woman,” she tells Minnesota state trooper Lou (Patrick Wilson), who cuts her off to remind her that people are dead. Peggy wants all the freedoms that the women’s movement affords without the responsibility it requires.

Meanwhile, having taken over the family business in the wake of her husband’s stroke, crime lord Floyd (Jean Smart) wants all the responsibility, even though the benefits aren’t great. “This is our time. No such thing as ‘men’s work,’ ‘women’s work’ anymore,” she tells her granddaughter, right before a rival crime gang shoots up her kitchen. This is what equality means to Floyd: earning the right to stand down a dramatic shoot-out, just like dozens of male antiheroes before her. That might be an empty victory for feminism. But it’s great for creating complex female characters on TV.

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An anthology series Inspired by the 1996 Coen Brothers film of the same name.
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